Eo is a donkey in a circus in Poland, tenderly cared for by Kasandra, who performs with him, and callously abused by other crew members. When a new law prohibits the use of animals in circus shows, the non-human performers are repossessed. So begins Eo’s journey of changing hands and being passed around like an unwelcome commodity. His next gigs are a political ceremony and a photoshoot, for which he supposedly was envisaged as a prop. The cycle of being sold, surrendered, freed and escaping takes the smart animal all the way to Italy – but Eo is not a heartening adventure movie.

Polish directing legend Jerzy Skolimowski’s contribution to Cannes’s official competition is a tribute to Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar, but it very much speaks for itself. Humans are not the protagonists of this story – they are catalysts. While the dialogue is crisp and audible (and subtitled for international audiences to understand), for the most part, speech works more like an ambient sound effect in this world. Many of the shots are from the donkey’s point of view, but the close-ups of his face and doleful eyes are equally expressive and appeal to the viewer’s empathy. The camera is dynamic, and a shrill red colours some of the reverberative images.

Isabelle Huppert is the first name listed on the festival website for cast, but, really, her appearance comes as a rather surprising cameo towards the end of the film. Her storyline with her stepson, who brings Eo to their family home, is the only longer absence the narrative takes from staying with the donkey. It diverts attention, because naturally all eyes are on Huppert and her singular cinematic presence. Then the Polish-Italian co-production resumes its place at Eo’s side, for better or worse.

Film festivals in the past years have seen their share of animal-centric features (Andrea Arnold’s Cow at last year’s Cannes, Gunda at the 2020 Berlinale). Viewers engage while they are in the screening room, but the envisaged wake-up call for the public to reevaluate humanity’s mistreatment of fellow sentient beings nevertheless fails to materialise. As depicted in Eo, animal liberation will likely come down to sudden legislation amendments that are going to be implemented at the very last second and, as such, force a mass euthanasia – instead of slowly phasing out zoos, circuses and test laboratories at a more intuitive pace.

★★★★☆

Selina Sondermann

Eo (Hi-Han) does not have a UK release date yet.

For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.

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